Jill-of-many-trades Leslie Simon has published essays on film, literature and politics as well several collections of poetry; these interests converge in her debut novel, The Divine Comic (Spuyten Duvil, $18.00). She talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about what she hopes readers will glean from this rollicking, inventive and wholly original tale.
YZM: Your protagonist is named Beatrice; given the novel’s title can we assume this is a reference to Dante and if so, what are the connections?
LS: Yes, safe assumption. The Divine Comedy is set on Easter weekend, and Passover, that last supper, figures prominently as a time element in The Divine Comic. But Beatrice is the one lost in the woods in the middle of her life, and Danny (Dante) is one of her guides. Though Danny loves her, she’s definitely not an adored love object, because he’s gay. She’s not the dead muse; he’s the dead comic. Beatrice is not a poet, but she takes poetry, the literary form her sister Leah treasures most, with her when she visits Israel and Palestine.
So I was playing with the grand poem, transferring qualities from one character to another, with no one an exact match for the original. It’s a bit like writers pulling from their own lives to populate their stories, but unless you’re dealing with a purely autobiographical novel, you can’t really pin any one character down. They are all, in the end, imagined.
Of course, there is the obvious connection that the Israel-Palestine conflict is a modern inferno with elements of the civil wars of revenge and retaliation that various Dante sinners had engaged in. Some Jews argue that suicide bombers deserve their due, and so the tie to Dante’s hell. But Jews like Beatrice see their people—clear victims in the last century—as major perpetrators of the tragic violence. And so ensues a smaller civil war within the Jewish community itself. A different kind of hell.
I was definitely drawn to Dante’s grappling with self-hate and landing on the side of “the loving self.” Jews, like other targeted peoples, internalize negative stereotypes about themselves. Danny wants to move Beatrice toward that loving self, and the journey he convinces her to take to Israel and Palestine also sets her on that personal journey of transformation.
There is more, but I want to save some for readers to discover.
YZM: Beatrice and her sister Leah are in conflict one of the things they fight about is Israel—why?
LS: Beatrice is confused by Leah’s love for Israel. Beatrice identifies with their anarchist atheist, very Jewish, maternal grandparents who didn’t believe in nation states, but Leah leans toward a spiritual and almost romantic devotion to a Jewish homeland. The losses of the holocaust, the stories their mother told about their murdered relatives–aunts and uncles, and cousins, grandparents, known only by some faded photographs–all of this weighed on Leah, while Beatrice embraced the anti-oppression politics of the sixties that, in her case, included the mistreatment of the Palestinian people by the Israeli government.
Leah would never call Beatrice out, but, privately, she saw her sister, who had been a hero to her after their mother died when Leah was just 13 and Beatrice 19, as misguided, even self-hating. A self-hating Jew. But Leah has her own troubles. As she spirals into despair over the agonies of the second world war’s attempted genocide of her people, she turns toward other slaughters, a turn which, ironically, brings her closer to understanding Beatrice’s compassion for the Palestinian people, though it doesn’t change Leah’s devotion to Zionism and what she perceives as safety for her own people.
YZM: Her call for security clashed with my cry for integrity is how Beatrice describes their quarrel; can you elaborate?
It was that need for safety and security that drives Leah. Beatrice, on the other hand, sees herself as upholding the Jewish tradition of fighting for liberation, not only for the Jewish people but also for other oppressed people, a tradition that leads to overrepresentation of Jews in social justice movements.
Beatrice quotes Jewish American writer Grace Paley who argues that Jews should remain “a remnant in the basement of world affairs” or a “splinter in the toe of civilization.” Sometimes holocaust survivors referred to themselves as “saved remnants” and refused revenge. Beatrice believes she stands for the kind of integrity of a person or a people who refuse to let injustice prevail. Jews should be–she agrees with Paley–a kind of conscience of the world.
Romantic in her own way, Beatrice, would like to see Jerusalem as an international city, a start toward a different vision for all of Israel-Palestine, and if you really want to know, for the world itself. Like her grandparents, she is not impressed that world powers gathered at the close of World War II to elevate Jews to the top floor of a small building where, to protect themselves, they need to keep a steady eye, and a massive gun, on those below. The basement that Paley references had its comforts.
Leah sees the Jewish homeland, defended by complex political and economic strategies, as essential to the safety of her people. That is where she finds her comfort. Not revenge. Never that. But Beatrice worries about the costs of that comfort.
And so the sisters clash.
YZM: Let’s talk about Beatrice’s ex-husband Mitch—what went wrong there?
LS: According to Beatrice, Mitch is a great guy—the sex is good, the parenting support is solid, their political beliefs are in sync, he backs her decision to go to law school and then launch her own private practice–but his cheerful disposition ends up colliding with her more saturnine nature. Additionally, Mitch tends to want to protect her, as her mother did, and she wants to confront the world on her own terms without some benevolent presence hovering. Even she admits that she might have made a mistake in leaving him but ultimately knows she had to go forward alone to brood, and, yes, to grow.
YZM: Beatrice is visited by ghosts—her dead friend Danny, Emma Goldman. What are you suggesting the power the dead continue to exert in our lives? Do you feel this is a particularly Jewish concept—why or why not?
LS: The power of the dead, or the power of our ancestors, shows up in a number of cultures. Maybe it’s in all of them in one form or another. My scattered knowledge of world philosophies and religions can make no definite claims. But I do know that more than a few cultural traditions honor the power of those who have passed to guide and protect us. So though I think the power of the dead in our lives is, yes, a particularly Jewish tradition, it is one that we share with other cultures. Still, I grew up next to, if not completely enveloped by, a Reform Jewish tradition, where the afterlife is more vague, and doing good while we are here on earth, more important.
And now, because of your wonderfully framed question, I think of the Kaddish, that Jewish prayer that Allen Ginsberg made famous. The elegy. The prayer over the dead. To remember, to mourn, to heal. The poem for his mother who suffered from severe mental illness. In it he refers to Emily Dickinson’s horses, in that poem of her own reckoning with death. Dickinson, the poet who Leah knows best.
All of that said, Danny and Emma have returned from the dead to help Beatrice through her troubles, to steady her. Beatrice distinguishes her sessions with them from the brief mumblings she shares with her dead relatives. Ghosts Danny and Emma are full blown characters. You could say they represent Beatrice’s own agitated mind. Although key to the story is Leah’s emotional unraveling, Beatrice, the presumably grounded sister, the lawyer, lives with her own vulnerabilities. Voices. From the dead. Guides–wise, wise-cracking, and loving.
Both Beatrice and Leah are looking for comfort. Their mother left them bereft at relatively young ages. They love each other but can’t talk about an issue important to each of them. So the dead come to haunt, in Leah’s case, through her compulsive recording of all those murders. And a couple of the departed ones come to help Beatrice make a kind of reconciliation with her sister.
Yes, the dead do exert their power.